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A Perverse Return to Boyhood?

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A real strength of Zinoman’s book is a wealth of original interviews he conducted with both directors and others involved in the making of the New Horror. Though he has chapters that deal with everyone from Brian De Palma to William Friedkin, he focuses particularly on George Romero, Wes Craven, John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon. In every case, Zinoman is at pains to contest the auteur theory, the idea that behind every great film is the vision of a single artist, usually the director. This idea has continued to hold sway with critics, fans, and movie makers themselves because it makes for a good story, the heroic vision of the artist overcoming the challenges of making a film. It also makes the process of making a film seem less complex and chaotic than it actually is, and the financial rewards for those few directors who rise to the status of auteurs is astounding. The reality, however, is that filmmaking is perhaps the most collaborative of all the arts. 


As Zinoman points out, even though George Romero directed Night of the Living Dead, it “was made in the spirit of a hippie commune of its era, shot by a group of recent college graduates who smoked pot and tossed some ideas around.” Even the crucial choice of African American actor Duane Jones to play the hero Ben was something of a chance, not a vision, as the script didn’t call for black actor in the role. Thus, the pragmatic challenges and unexpected opportunities of filmmaking changed the small horror film into a charged racial allegory. Zinoman observes that in many of the abject images that are the mark of New Horror, politics come along for the ride, making these films seemingly more coherent in their reception than in the actual production: “the image of child feeding on her father and a mob of undead carries obvious political implications”     


The careers of director John Carpenter and screenwriter Dan O’Bannon anchor the book in many ways, and tell not only the story of New Horror, but also the oldest story in Hollywood: two collaborators share much in the creation but fail to share in success. In this version, Carpenter is the talented but slick opportunist who rises to fame and fortune with Halloween while O’Bannon, geeky, paranoid and brilliant creates and then loses control of Alien. They begin together with Dark Star as a film school project at USC.  For almost no money, they made an atmospheric and absurdist film that would anticipate the ethos of a grittier, working class vision of the future. They collaborated extensively, with O’Bannon doing much of the script, the design, and even acting in the film while Carpenter obsessed over the shots.  Their partnership, however, didn’t last:


“Soon after the movie was made, O’Bannon began telling their friends that he did so much work on the film that it was misleading for Carpenter to call himself the director. He said that he was as responsible for what was on-screen as Carpenter was. Carpenter knew the value of being seen as the auteur, and when word got to him about what O’Bannon was saying, he wasted no time clearing it up. He took O’Bannon out to a restaurant, told him that he was the director and no one else, and then said that they needed to stop working together.”



O’Bannon allows Zinoman to turn his critique of the auteur theory into tragedy. Clearly, O’Bannon was brilliant, tossing off ideas, taking risks, generating an incredible amount of energy.  In film school, he was chosen as a partner by John Carpenter, the rising star. After film school, despite their falling out, doors opened, and it seemed like O’Bannon should have found major success. But collaboration has its dark side, and O’Bannon’s paranoia, egotism, rages and general inability to develop the kind of social skills necessary to thrive cost him a career and made him a minor character rather than a star of New Horror.   


Zinoman clearly loves horror films, and he writes about them with real affection. One of the greatest pleasures of the book is reading his evocations of films like Night of the Living Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, The Exorcist, and Alien. For readers new to horror, he connects the films to their earlier literary and cinematic influences, like the stories of H. P. Lovecraft and classic films like It Came From Outer Space. He also points readers in the direction of films that few but aficionados would know, like George Romero’s Martin, a small film about a young boy convinced he is a vampire.  As Zinoman describes it, “Martin, sensitive, lonely, and surrounded by terrible relationships, appears harmless compared with the ugliness that besets ordinary people in the dying industrial city of Pittsburgh.” 


The weakest part of the book is its last chapter, “The Fear Sickness”, in which Zinoman tries to understand not just how New Horror came to be, but the far more complex question, why do we enjoy these films? He gamely summarizes a number of theories that concentrate on a release of our own repressed fears and desires, citing Steve King’s rather Freudian account from Danse Macbre, but he finally decides that its all about returning to childhood. He writes, “These are movies that want to confuse you, in part because getting lost focuses the attention on the terror of uncertainty. That’s something we can all relate to, because we were all children. As you get older, it becomes harder to access that shock of being lost, that feeling of helplessness that is as attractive as it is upsetting.” This universal “we” of the spectator is more than a bit troubling when every horror film he talks about was directed by a man and the majority of the audience for these films are also young men.


Its even more telling that the violence in these films is usually played out on the bodies of women. To say this is just “a return to childhood” is not only naive, but deeply troubling. Is it a return in the same way for men as it is for women? Is it a return to “childhood”, or a series of far more complex returns that circulate around male fears of castration and horror at the spectacle of childbirth? The latter is a theme that Zinoman acknowledges throughout the book, but never really analyzes in any critical depth. 


Major scholars have written substantial accounts to answer these questions, but you wouldn’t really know that from reading Zinoman’s book. While he tells the stories of how the men created these films, readers interested in what these films mean would do well to skip his last chapter and instead pick up work like Carol Clover’s Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film or Barbara Creed’s magisterial The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, and Psychoanalysis. Creed’s enormously influential account argues convincingly that New Horror films are not about a return just to childhood helplessness, but rather an encounter with our patriarchal culture’s horror at the maternal body, the violent slashing of women acting out the very castration, both symbolic and literal, that so drives the fears of young men. Creed roots her comprehensive and subtle readings of these films in philosopher Julia Kristeva’s brilliant work Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection


Indeed, after reading Zinoman’s weak conclusion, one is tempted to to say that while it might have taken men to give us films like The Last House on the Left and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it takes women like Kristeva and Creed to tell us what they mean.

David Banash is a Professor of English at Western Illinois University, where he teaches courses in contemporary literature, film, and popular culture. He is the author of Collage Culture: Readymades, Meaning, and the Age of Consumption (Rodopi) and co-editor of Contemporary Collecting: Objects, Practices, and the Fate of Things (Scarecrow).


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